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Tuesday 17th September 2019,
Hope for Nigeria

Case congestion in Lagos courts hinder access to justice

Case congestion in Lagos courts hinder access to justice

Case congestion in Lagos courts hinder access to justice

Court! The voice of the male registrar pealed through the Sexual Violence Court to announce the arrival of Her Lordship, Sybil Nwaka, on June 25, 2019. Time was 11:16 a.m.

The High Court Rules of Lagos State provides that sitting at the court should start officially at 9 a.m. and end by 4 p.m. On this day, however, sitting ended around 2:08 p.m.

After about three hours sitting, Justice Nwaka was able to entertain only three matters out of 26 cases slated for the day. She also delivered two rulings not listed in the cause list, or on the court’s website at www.lagosjudiciary.gov.ng/portal for the week of June 24-28, 2019.

Isiaka Oladele, scheduled to be arraigned before Ms Nwaka on that day, was not lucky. His case was adjourned to October 2, 2019. By implication, Mr Oladele will have to spend another four months in remand. By this date, it is expected that more cases would have piled up in Ms Nwaka’s docket.

Not that Ms Nwaka is oblivious of the anguish and frustration that litigants go through, but according to her, she had to rise before official sitting hours to attend a maiden meeting with the new Chief Judge of the State, Kazeem Alogba, alongside other justices.

By her action, the fate of Mr Oladele, who was not accompanied by a legal counsel on this day, and that of other justice seekers whose matters were not heard would have to wait in the wings until after all the justices come back from the annual court recess which began in July.

Legal proceedings on June 26, was not in any way different from the previous day. On June 26, 27 matters were slated for hearing, including one earlier adjourned to June 28.

But proceedings did not begin in the court until 11:20 a.m. Ms Nwaka rose three hours later at about 2:07 p.m. after hearing the bail application of a defendant, Adenekan Adegboyega, who was standing trial for the defilement of a child in suit number LD/5013C/17.

Ms Nwaka didn’t show up on June 27 and no reason was offered.

This reporter later found out that most of the judges of the court did not sit as well because they were attending a valedictory service in honour of former Chief Judge of the state, Opeyemi Oke, who had just retired. Consequently, 22 suits on the cause list, expected to be handled by Ms Nwaka for the day, got new dates and remained in the docket still.

No matter was slated for hearing on Friday, June 28, according to the week’s cause list. However, arguments for the bail of a certain Adenekan was adjourned for that day, and the ruling was adjourned to July 3.

In all, a total of 105 cases, plus another five add-ons as a result of contingencies, were slated for hearing for the week, making a total of 110 cases. Of these, only 10 cases were entertained by Ms Nwaka. That’s less than 10 per cent of the entire cases in the docket for the week.

Yet on average, the judge is assigned 22 cases daily. And in a month, charges begging for her attention would be in excess of 400 cases.

That is happening in the Lagos State Judiciary where government cited the need for speedy hearing and dispensation of justice as reasons for establishing the Special and Sexual Violence Courts in February 2018.

Recognising the magnitude of the social and economic cost of domestic and sexual violence, the state government pioneered the Lagos State DSVRT in 2014, and later the Special and Sexual Violence Courts to deal mainly with matters bothering on domestic violence and sexual assaults separate from the normal courts.

Sad reality

In 2018, Mr Alogba, then an adminstrative judge, chaired a committee to review the Civil Procedure Rules 2012. In one of the briefings by the committee to intimate the bar and bench of their activities, he painted a pitiable picture of the plight of his colleagues.

“Sometimes in my humble position as an administrative judge, it pains me a lot because at a time, you could give one judge 50 files and within the week more cases are filed; you’d still send more files to that judge. What miracle do you expect a judge to perform in such circumstances?”

A year after Mr Alogba’s lamentations, the Lagos judiciary is still reeling under the burden of overflowing dockets and tell-tale signs of fatigue on the judges.

According to Titilola Vivour-Adeniyi, Coordinator of the Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT) in Lagos State, Ms Nwaka currently has over 600 cases gathering dust in her docket for 2018 alone.

The workload is the same for the other judge in the Lagos State Sexual Violence Court. Further checks at the court registry show that Justice Abiola Soladoye has matters in excess of 350 pending before her for 2018 too.

Mojisola Dada and Oluwatoyin Taiwo, both judges of the Special Offences Courts, are heavily ladened too. At the inauguration of the Special and Sexual Violence Courts in 2018, former Chief Judge of Lagos State, Opeyemi Oke, revealed that no less than 500 matters bothering on economic and financial crimes begging for the attention of the court were assigned to both judges. In effect, both women had 250 matters each in their dockets at the start of operations in the economic and financial crimes court (Special Offences Courts.)

“Presently, there are over 500 cases of financial crimes pending before the High Court, the bulk of which have now been assigned to the Special Offences Courts,” she said.

“We are enthusiastic about the designation of the new courts as we see the development as a step in the right direction.”

This was the plan, but the reality that later dawned on the special courts after one year of existence speaks to the same challenge.

By the end of 2018, Kayode Oyekanmi, Public Affairs Officer at the Lagos State Ministry of Justice, told this reporter that the Directorate of Public Prosecution had added additional 407 matters to the already overflowing dockets at the Special and Sexual Offences Court. As at July this year too, the DPP has filed another 273 cases already, increasing the number to 680, with the likelihood of an increase before the end of the year.

How delay affects the system – Lawyer

The backlash of the rising numbers of case files inundating the four justices at the special courts is the sustained frustration and several adjournments that many trials suffer before they get to be concluded. By implication, the adjournments culminate in swelling population in the prisons because of defendants who have to remain in custody until their matters are entertained.

“You see, the justice system has been circumvented by such undue delay in the administration of justice,” Kayode Bankole lamented to this reporter, “and those who infringed on the right of the aggrieved take solace in the snail speed that bedevilled and underpins our justice system.”

“It affects justice system in that it makes the citizens lose confidence in the judicial process and it also encourages the oppressors to continue to do what they are doing. People who thrive in impunity, it encourages them to continue because they know that at the end of the day justice will be denied by way of justice delayed,” the Lagos lawyer explained.

Loophole in Lagos criminal law

However, one of the major factors responsible for the perceived lapses on the part of judges lies with the framing of the Criminal Law of Lagos State 2015. The law is silent about the maximum limit of adjournment in any particular criminal cause. Quite unlike the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA 2015, which sets out to ensure speedy trials.

Section 396 of the ACJA, for instance, provides for day-to-day trial for criminal cases. Where this is not possible, the number of adjournments is limited to five each and the interval between each adjournment is not to exceed 14 days. Where the trial has not been concluded, then the court may award cost on any other frivolous application for adjournment as the case may be.

The reason behind this provision is for parties to a criminal proceeding to execute their duties expeditiously in order to obtain the best favourable results for their clients.

Like Lagos courts, like Supreme Court

Even at that, this crucial Section of the ACJA 2015 appears to be effective only on paper. At the Supreme Court where the ACJA is expected to be fully deployed, litigants are already taking dates beyond 2019 as a possible time for their matters to come up, this reporter found out.

As early as February this year, counsel have started taking 2020 dates.

“Let me tell you, at the Supreme Court as at today, we have started taking year 2021 dates, not 2020,” Mr Bankole disclosed.

“So if you file a case today in the Supreme Court, you cannot get a date this year again, it will be hard. It has to be 2020 or towards the end of 2021.”

The reason for that is not too far to seek. The apex court is also groaning under a heavy workload. And unfortunately, it is the same number of justices the constitution provided for when Nigeria was just 100 million people around 1979 that are still there today when the national population has snowballed to 201 million.

Section 230 of the 1999 constitution provides for a maximum of 21 justices, including the Chief Justice of Nigeria, to be in the Supreme Court at any point in time. But as of 2019, only the Chief Justice of Nigeria and 14 other justices are on the bench of the Supreme Court. Invariably the court is running on a six-man deficit.

The situation at the Supreme Court was lamented by a federal minister who called for radical reforms.

“Our Supreme Court is the busiest Supreme Court (in the world). The kinds of cases that go up to our Supreme Court are scandalous, appeals dealing with frivolous matters,” Festus Keyamo, a senior lawyer and minister of state for Niger Delta, told senators.

“As the Supreme Court is designed today, you won’t believe that a case of assault, ‘I slap you, you slap me’, goes up to the Supreme Court and (will) be lining up with political and constitutional matters to be heard – which is why cases in Supreme Court have been pending for the last 10 to 15 years,” he said.

“You cannot get a date at the Supreme Court now till 2022 except political cases. We need regional Supreme Courts so the one in Abuja can only attend to constitutional and political matters,” he said.

The Devil’s Advocates?

Part of the problems identified by the Mr Alogba-led committee on the review of civil procedures rule in 2018 are the antics many lawyers deploy to delay or scuttle trials.

That’s done in part through asking for frivolous adjournments, or not showing up in court on appointed dates, this reporter found out.

This reporter also found out that when lawyers are not asking for adjournments or playing the truants, they make the job of the judge more difficult using lengthy written addresses.

“Most of these judges came in very beautiful and handsome but after five years, they’d become enemies of the barbing salon because of your voluminous written addresses,” the judge said.

As such, the Lagos judiciary has set a limit for all written addresses to be no more than 20 pages, and reply on point-of-law to five pages.

Lawyers who scuttle trial dates at will, will also pay a fine of N100,000 to serve as deterrent.

Mr Bankole does not, however, believe the sanctions are the solutions to the problem.

“It is not making the rules to be harsh that will solve the problems but rather it is when the system works properly. When the right persons are called to the Bar, the right persons are called to the Bench and the system is well funded and above all the right attitude. It is then we are going to have justice or resemblance of justice.”

Same old structure

At the moment, there are just 59 judges and 120 magistrates staffing the courts in Lagos. That’s less than 200 judicial staff in a state of about 20 million people, according to the state government.

As the population burgeons, business transactions are expanding, relationships are also being cultivated, thus making infringements inevitable.

But the Lagos courts remain the same old institutions—manned by stenographers who listen to court proceedings and type away on their typewriters. And judges and magistrates who shuttle between listening to counsel and taking notes in the usual long hand.

“We need to equip our judicial system with basic infrastructure. It’s high time we left the long-hand process we are using in taking notes of proceedings. We should employ technology in the administration of justice. We see how other nations are not taking proceedings in long-hand, rather it is being recorded electronically after which they review and do the right thing,’ Monday Ubani, 2nd Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, told the reporter.

“Funding is also an issue. If we employ more judges, that means you have to pay more money, you also have to equip the court system and we must also amend some of our rules to accommodate speedy dispensation of justice.”

*This investigation was done with the support of the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ)


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